Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rewriting Balaam

John R. Levison has suggested that Josephus removed all references to “divine spirit” in his rewriting of the Torah so that his first mention of the “divine spirit” is intentionally set in the story of Balaam. Levison indicates Josephus does this to emphasize that “it is a focal point for Josephus's understanding of inspiration.” I write to suggest that Josephus rewrote sacred scriptures to eliminate references to πνεῦμα κυρίου translated as “spirit of the Lord” just as he rewrote other passages of sacred scriptures relied upon by the followers of Jesus. In Rewriting Sacred Scriptures, I noted that Josephus has altered texts relating to personalities that only appear in Luke-Acts. I now suggest that one of his reasons for eliminating references to πνεῦμα κυρίου is because the Holy Spirit is such an important character in the Acts of the Apostles.

Other scholars have indicated that Josephus did so in deference to his non-Jewish audience that would not understand the Jewish conception of the spirit. This is not a plausible explanation given that the story of Balaam is so prominent in Antiquities. This deference to his non-Jewish audience provides an important clue since this audience would be unlikely to be familiar with the story of Balaam and his ass as it appears in the Book of Numbers. This introduces the possibility that Josephus told the story of Balaam in such a way that it was understood as a ridicule of the Holy Spirit.

Although speaking animals are a common theme in mythology and folk tales, I suspect that the appearance of speaking animals, in a serious work such as Antiquities, would normally detract from its value as a scholarly tome.

Numerous scholars have recognized have recognized the story of Balaam is an example of the use of ridicule and satire. In the Biblical account, the narrative is opened and closed by the command, “You shall say only the words I put into your mouth” given at the beginning, repeated at midpoint and again at the end. Balaam three times refuses to obey the angel resulting in separate blessings and three prophecies against the enemies of Israel. David Marcus has indicated the biblical story of Balaam is an example of anti-prophetic satire. Balaam is the target.

In the biblical story of Balaam and the ass, King Balak sent for Balaam, a seer, to request an oracle from him predicting the defeat of Balak's enemy, Israel. Balaam does not want to meet Balak but does agree to do so. Balaam set off on his ass. This ass was confronted by an angel, which Balaam, the seer, failed to perceive. After the ass startled Balaam by explaining its vision, Balaam continued on, having resolved to speak on behalf of Israel, rather than for Balak. Although the ass perceived the angel, nowhere in the biblical tale is it associated with the divine spirit. In the Bible, Balaam does not give advice.

In Antiquities, the ass is the first to become aware of the divine spirit: “the ass whereon Balaam rode, conscious of the divine spirit approaching her, turning aside thrust Balaam against one of these fences.” When Balaam inflicted stripes upon the ass, “she made use of the voice of a man, and complained of Balaam as acting unjustly to her.” Then “the angel plainly appeared to him, and blamed him for the stripes he had given his ass; and informed him that the brute creature was not in fault, but that he was himself come to obstruct his journey, as being contrary to the will of God.” Josephus changed the speaking role of the ass from an explanation of its vision to a whining complaint of its owner.

Josephus identified the angel with the divine spirit that many would recognize as the Holy Spirit of Acts of the Apostles. This identification is consistent with the Jewish heritage of Josephus. However, Josephus omitted the most significant part of the story which is the famous prophecy of Balaam that a star would arise from Jacob, a scepter from Israel (Numbers 24:17). Furthermore Josephus added two additional references in this story to the divine spirit as if to emphasize that the ass was inspired to speak by the divine spirit. In addition, Josephus states the reason why God had refused the request of Balak saying the Israelites were in his favor. Josephus presents Balaam as counseling the envoys to renounce their hatred of the Israelites. Finally, Josephus omits the account of the death of Balaam in battle. Feldman has noted that Josephus “has added importance to Balaam by having him offer the sacrifice (Ant. 4.113) before he prophesies.”

Perhaps the most famous and inspiring words in the Acts of the Apostles is the speech delivered on Pentecost where Peter quotes the Prophet Joel saying, inter alia, “I will pour out my spirit.” As might be expected, Josephus has omitted this passage which Peter quoted on that day when the Spirit of God poured out upon three thousand people who must have been assembled in the courtyard of the Temple. Josephus has omitted not only this passage but all references in his writings to the Prophet Joel.

Josephus in his rearrangement elevates Balaam and makes the Holy Spirit the subject of his ridicule and satire.

This is a work in progress.

Copyrighted 2008


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